USC Recruits Get Wind of What Really Hurt Hogs in Dysfunctional Season

Eric Musselman, Bryce Pope, Arkansas basketball, USC basketball
photo credit: Craven Whitlow / Bryce Pope

Time may heal wounds, but when it comes to sports, that rarely applies. Consider how much Cubs diehards hated Steve Bartman or how Red Sox fans felt about Bill Buckner. Those two men have since been forgiven by those two fan bases, but only after those teams won World Series titles.

Is that what it will take for Arkansas’ insane segment to treat Eric Musselman with the respect he deserves? A championship?

Musselman, who left Arkansas just after the basketball season ended for the same head coaching job at Southern California, took a lot of blame for the Razorbacks’ disappointing season. 

The season was, record-wise, the worst in Fayetteville in more than a decade. The drama surrounding the season was as nutty as it’s been than at any point since the controversial end of the Nolan Richardson era some 20-plus years before.

The Muss Bus rolled into Northwest Arkansas on a high. Fans were thrilled quickly as Arkansas won 20 games in the regular season in Musselman’s first year on campus. The team was on the NCAA Tournament bubble before the postseason was canceled because of COVID-19. In the next two seasons, the Razorbacks made consecutive Elite Eights and in 2022-23, Musselman led the Hogs to the Sweet 16, where they would lose to the eventual national champion. That team, which saw four players in the NBA the very next year, had to be re-tooled. So Musselman did what he does best: he brought in loads of talent.

Except things never meshed. On-court struggles were clear and off the court, things were so messy, the rumor mill churned all sorts of nonsense. Earlier this week, Musselman’s new players at USC gave insight to the kind of team their new coach is building in Los Angeles.

It ain’t like the one he built in his last year in the Boston Mountains.

Former UC-San Diego player Bryce Pope said he received the impression Musselman was recruiting “high-character guys,” according to the OC Register.

Arkansas Basketball Goes off the Rails

He doesn’t appear to be wrong, based off last year’s chaos. Not that anyone on the outside looking in knows the character of the individual players, per se, but the way the team as a whole handled stress could be qualified as poor. Take, for example, the instance of players openly mocking their coach at the team hotel during the SEC Tournament.

However, the trouble started long before that. Things were almost immediately awry.

Arkansas was beaten by North Carolina-Greensboro at home in the fourth game of the season. The next week in the Bahamas, the Hogs went 1-2, needing two overtimes to beat a Stanford team that ultimately went 14-18. 

And while the next month was strong, including a win back at Bud Walton Arena over Duke that pointed to the ability the team had when it played cohesive basketball and avoided unnecessary distraction, the wheels came off when SEC play started. 

Auburn set a BWA record by beating Arkansas by 32 points in the league opener. Double-digit losses at Florida and Georgia followed and only a one-point win against Texas A&M kept the Razorbacks from starting with an 0-7 record in the SEC. It was during that stretch that fans gave up. 

Nasty rumors about a love triangle emerged. Arkansas turned quickly on the California-grown Musselman and even more so on the players, whose painted fingernails and changing hairstyles didn’t jibe with the conservative values of an overwhelmingly red state. 

Some fans went so far as to call Musselman, who is white, a racist for not playing his white players. Primarily, they meant Morrilton High’s Joseph Pinion, who transferred to Arkansas State after the season.

Musselman was fed up. Likely by more than just the team’s results. It was clear Arkansas basketball fans were getting into the players’ heads as, at one point, Trevon Brazile, who spent a large chunk of conference play injured, appeared to poke fun at the rumors by looking directly at a camera during a game and making a hand gesture that signaled his awareness of them. Devo Davis, who left the team the previous season for a game, did so again in the winter, drawing further ire.

Eric Musselman with USC Basketball

By the time Arkansas started playing legitimate basketball late in the year, it was too late. Guys were playing hard, but rarely together. Immediately after the season, the usually gregarious and social-media savvy Musselman stayed out of the limelight, ultimately pulling the stunner of leaving for an inferior basketball program, albeit one more in line with his nature and back close to his home.

Saint Thomas, who transferred from Northern Colorado to play for Musselman at USC, told the OC Register he wanted to be a part of Musselman’s program with the Trojans, where he said the coach was honest with him about pushing his players further than they thought they could go. 

Thomas even said other coaches who contacted him in the portal were telling him that he didn’t want to play for Musselman. USC could be bad news, the way Arkansas was. Pope saw that as a plus, not a minus. In an era in which players like Arkansas’ last year are painted as spoiled, Pope inferred Musselman wanted to ensure his team would not be like that again. 

Musselman is building his first USC basketball roster much like his last one at Arkansas when it comes to the on-the-court values. He isn’t going after superstars, instead picking guys who have been through the grind elsewhere and may have something to prove about playing at a Power Five school. 

Arkansas, on the other hand, has flipped the script. New Arkansas basketball coach John Calipari, who has had loads of success by recruiting the most elite talent, has continued his mantra. The Hogs are short on quantity right now, what with every single scholarship player from last year gone, but Calipari is replacing them with five-star basketball players.

Will they be five-star humans? Most of the ones he’s had in the past are. They glow about him. But Musselman’s do, too. Last season was a blip for Muss, not the standard. Arkansas is hoping it was a blip for the Hogs, too.

USC Basketball Roster

Here’s a look at the roster Eric Musselman has put together at USC…

  • Josh Cohen – sixth-year senior (transfer from UMass)
  • Bryce Pope – sixth-year senior (transfer from San Diego)
  • Clark Slajchert – fifth-year senior (transfer from Penn)
  • Matt Knowling – fifth-year senior (transfer from Yale)
  • Chibuzo Agbo – fifth-year senior (transfer from Boise State)
  • Terrance Williams – fifth-year senior (transfer from Michigan)
  • Saint Thomas – senior (transfer from Northern Colorado)
  • Rashaun Agee – senior (transfer from Bowling Green)
  • Harrison Hornery – senior (holdover)
  • Desmond Claude – junior (transfer from Xavier)
  • Isaiah Elohim – freshman (HS signee)
  • Jalen Shelley – freshman (HS signee)


Here’s more on how Musselman will be remembered at Arkansas:


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YouTube video


More coverage of Arkansas basketball from BoAS… 

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